August 11, 2011, 8:00 AM — Remember the browser wars? When men were men, sheep were frightened, and tags <blink>ed?
I sure do, but once upon a time I was the editor of the old BrowserWatch site. It's gone now, along with many of the other browsers that rose up to challenge the Internet Explorer (IE) behemoth around the turn of the century. Gone, too, are the infamous browser wars, which centered around extensions to existing web standards that would give one browser or another a definite edge over web site rendering.
The remnants of the browser wars are still around; we can all find kludgey web sites that pop up like abandoned gas stations on the side of the Information Superhighway. But for the most part, the Web is built with open standards in mind and all is well in the world. Rare is the web site that I can use Firefox and not IE, Safari, or Opera. (Safari, though, has its own issues on iOS, but that's another tale about Flash.)
I'm not sure how 'running it in the browser' is supposed to magically erase all the problems that in years past were associated with running in multiple operating systems. The more power and control is given to the browser, the more complex they become, and the less likely it is that different browsers will be able to provide the same experience.
Yesterday however, I had a bit of a surprise that reminded me that even though open web standards built around HTML5 should be accessible to all browsers equally, apparently some browsers are more equal than others.
It started innocuously enough; someone on Google Plus posted a note yesterday that Amazon's Kindle Cloud Reader had been released. I have a few Kindle books on my iPad (currently in the middle of Book 3 of A Song of Ice and Fire, and Sweet Christmas, is this author going to kill off all my favorite characters???), so I thought I would give it a look-see.
This new web application is Amazon's way of deftly getting around Apple's restrictions on in-app purchases without giving Apple a piece of the action. Rather than pay Apple their cut, Amazon pulled the iOS Kindle app's in-app link to the Amazon Kindle store. You could still buy Kindle books, but you would have to surf to the Amazon Web site in a browser to actually buy them and send them to you device. The Kindle Cloud Reader is a pure web app that enables you to read Kindle books (even off-line) and shop the Kindle store straight from the app again. It's not a true iOS app, but once you set it up in Safari on an iOS device, you can set the shortcut as a home screen icon, so it behaves in pretty much the same way.
Personally, I thought it an elegant response to Apple's quest to squeeze money out of every iOS developer on the planet, so I thought I would install it and see what's what. Imagine my surprise, though, when I discovered that though the new web app would work on any iOS device, it would only work on computers with Safari and Chrome--not Firefox or Internet Explorer.
"Support for additional browsers coming soon," it reads on the bottom of the page if you come in on something other than Chrome or Safari. Now, I know this isn't a deliberate snub of the other browsers. Clearly the developers of this web app had to get it to work on Safari, because that's the only vector to get it onto an Apple device. And, since both Chrome and Safari have a shared ancestor in WebKit, it makes sense that what would work in one browser would work in the other.
As Firefox and IE become more proficient in HTML5, I would expect this new app will be available on those browsers. But it makes me wonder: if HTML5 and other web technologies are supposed to be open and standardized, then will web app developers have to continually tweak their apps in order to accommodate deficiencies or advantages between browsers, or will browsers have to constantly stay in sync with each other's features just to be able to run all the web apps out there?
Either situation raises an interesting potential scenario. In the former, web app developers, who were promised the glory of wide-open standards, will find themselves making adjustments to their web applications in order to accommodate different browsers' features, since some browsers will be ahead of others in some areas in some capabilities and behind in others. If this were to happen, how long until the web app developers start playing by the numbers and target browsers by market share first?
The other scenario is only slightly more palatable: a rapid-release situation across all the major browsers that will result in users having to wait until their browser can access the latest Cool App. Granted, they may only have to wait weeks or days, but in this instant-on, give-it-to-me-now society, how patient will they be?
If this happens, we will see a repeat of the browser wars of a decade ago, only this time with the browsers as app platforms, not just page renderers.
As adoption of HTML5 matures, I'm sure there will be far fewer drastic differences between browsers as all of their implementation reach a stable plateau. Still, there's always a way to do things "better"--how long will it be until browsers start breaking away with their own extensions, just like the HTML add-ons that plagued users during the first browser war?
I do not believe the release of the Kindle Cloud Reader is an opening volley in such a war, but it is a symptom of what may become commonplace as app developers and browser projects jockey for advantage in the next big stage of Web development.